Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombast von Hohenheim, who called himself Paracelsus, stands at the cusp of medieval and modern times. A contemporary of Luther, an enemy of the medical establishment, a scourge of the universities, an alchemist, an army surgeon, and a radical theologian, he attracted myths even before he died. His fantastic journeys across Europe and beyond were said to be made on a magical white horse, and he was rumored to carry the elixir of life in the pommel of his great broadsword. His name was linked with Faust, who bargained with the devil.
Who was the man behind these stories? Some have accused him of being a charlatan, a windbag who filled his books with wild speculations and invented words. Others claim him as the father of modern medicine. Philip Ball exposes a more complex truth in The Devil's Doctor--one that emerges only by entering into Paracelsus's time. He explores the intellectual, political, and religious undercurrents of the sixteenth century and looks at how doctors really practiced, at how people traveled, and at how wars were fought. For Paracelsus was a product of an age of change and strife, of renaissance and reformation. And yet by uniting the diverse disciplines of medicine, biology, and alchemy, he assisted, almost in spite of himself, in the birth of science and the emergence of the age of rationalism.
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Farrar, Straus and Giroux
April 01, 2006
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Excerpt from The Devil's Doctor by Philip Ball
The Devil's Doctor
A Country Doctor
First there is the forest and inside the forest the clearing and inside the clearing the cabin and inside the cabin the mother and inside the mother the child and inside the child the mountain.
Paracelsus, physician, magician, alchemist, urge, demiurge, deus et omnia was born under the sign of the occult, ruled by Mars and driven by a mountain in his soul.
--Jeanette Winterson, Gut Symmetries (1997)
Every year on the fourteenth of September, it is as if the small Swiss town of Einsiedeln, in the canton of Schwyz, returns to the time when Paracelsus was born there. The town square, dominated by the vast Benedictine abbey, is dark but for thousands of candles flickering in glass pots from every wall and windowsill. As the moon rises above the wooded hill that overlooks the scene, the evening is scented with the resinous tang of incense. From out of the abbey comes a solemn procession of pilgrims, each with a flame in hand, led by priests robed in white and monks in their dark habits. The only incongruous element is a brass band in chocolate-box uniforms, lending the scene a touch of fairground baroque. It is the end of summer, and the night air grows chill. Outside, beyond the town, darkness gathers.
The candle-carrying pilgrims who parade each year in Einsiedeln mark the annual celebration of the Miraculous Consecration. The first church and monastery were erected there in 948 by the wealthy Canon Eberhard of Strasbourg, but plans for their consecration byBishop Conrad of Constanz were preempted. On the eve of the ceremony, the bishop was astonished to find the chapel filled with a choir of angels, while the service was conducted by Christ Himself, assisted by St. Peter, St. Gregory the Great, and the Four Evangelists. Not trusting his own senses, and entreated by Eberhard and the Benedictine brothers to carry out the ceremony as had been planned, the bishop began the ritual the next day only to be halted by God's voice telling him that the place was already consecrated. Hearing Conrad's account, Pope Leo VIII forbade any subsequent attempt at consecration.
Einsiedeln was already a site of pilgrimage when the abbey was built. But there had been nothing there except wild forest when, in the ninth century, the Benedictine monk Meinrad arrived from Bollingen on Lake Z�rich. In a clearing by the River Sihl, Meinrad established a hermitage where he withdrew in 829 for a life of solitary contemplation. He took with him a Madonna and Child carved from hard black wood, a gift from Abbess Hildegarde of the convent on Lake Zurich. To house this statue Meinrad made a shrine, and the "Black Madonna" became known as Our Lady of Einsiedeln. The original figurine was destroyed by a fire, but a fifteenth-century copy still stands in a gilded case in the entrance to the abbey.
As people began to seek out this ascetic hermit and ask for his blessing, the rumor spread that Meinrad had accumulated great wealth. One day brigands turned up at the lonely hut and cut down the monk, who greeted them mildly with an offer of food. But they searched in vain for treasure. According to legend, two ravens, witnessing the murder, flew to Zurich to raise the alarm, so that the thieves were caught and burned at the stake. Meinrad, martyred in 861, was subsequently canonized. Einsiedeln does not forget its founding legend, for the two black ravens are everywhere still today: on the town's coat of arms, on the Black Madonna's shrine, even on the logo for the local beer.
By the fifteenth century the town had grown around the monastery, with a hospital where sick pilgrims were treated. Some time in the 1480s Paracelsus's father, a young medical graduate of the University of T�bingen named Wilhelm von Hohenheim, arrived in Einsiedeln and became physician for the town and hospital.
FALLEN FROM GRACE
Wilhelm may have wandered this way more or less aimlessly from southern Germany, without money and lacking even the formal qualification of a doctor, for he did not complete his postgraduate studies at T�bingen. Although the family name von Hohenheim implied nobility, his father Georg had been disgraced and became impoverished, and moreover Wilhelm was illegitimate and had been raised on his uncle's farm in the village of Rieth in W�rttemberg.
Hohenheim Castle stood near Stuttgart in Swabia, and it was the seat (the name means "mountain home") of Conrad Bombast, who died in 1299. Conrad was a soldier and a feudal tenant of the count of W�rttemberg, with claim to the tithes of the villagers of Plieningen and Ober-Esslingen. But by the time Georg rode as a commander of the Teutonic Knights on a crusade to the Holy Land in 1468, the fortunes of the Bombasts were in decline. They had farther yet to fall.
Bombast, an old Swabian name, has inevitably given rise to the idea that Paracelsus's bluster and arrogance lie at the root of the word "bombastic." One feels that ought to be so, but it is not. Baum means "tree" in German (in the Swabian dialect it is rendered Bom), and Baumbast is the fibrous layer of a tree's bark. But in the sixteenth century "bombast" had also come to mean cotton padding, inappropriately derived from bombax, the medieval Latin name for the silkworm, and it is from this origin that the connotation of puffed up derives. The family line of the Bombasts von Hohenheim ended in 1574, but there were still Bombasts in W�rttemberg in the nineteenth century.
The story of Ritter (knight) Georg Bombast von Hohenheim has something of a Paracelsian tenor, for he was a man toppled from his position of power by his own ungovernable impulses. He fathered Wilhelm in 1457 by an unnamed mistress--no great embarrassment for its time, although disadvantageous for Wilhelm--and Georg came to hold high rank with the Order of the Knights Hospitaller of St. John of Jerusalem.
In 1489 Georg became embroiled in a bitter political argument in Stuttgart, and his fierce tongue caused him to be summoned before the High Court of Justice, which decreed that Georg's estate (such asit was) was forfeit. Thereafter the disgraced von Hohenheims were a family of paltry means and little consequence. It may have been his father's downfall that set Wilhelm on his travels south. Others say that his arrival in Einsiedeln was no happenstance, but that he was summoned there from W�rttemberg to take up his position as town physician in 1481.
A COUNTRY DOCTOR
There is a woodcut of Einsiedeln from 1577 that shows the abbey lodged on a hill beneath forests that climb up the mountainside. A cluster of houses is scattered farther down the slopes, and the road winding up to the abbey from the valley floor is busy with pilgrims on foot and on horse. Down a ravine, steepened by artistic license, tumbles the torrent of the Sihl, and the water is straddled at one point by the wooden Te�felsbr�cke, the Devil's Bridge. Beside this bridge is a sturdy building, somewhat larger than the humble lodgings of the town, and this, one assumes, is the inn where a footsore Wilhelm rested after his long journey.
The inn, set in green hills about three miles from the town, was run by the family of Rudi Ochsner. It stood on ground owned by the abbey, to which the Ochsners were feudally bound. Behind the inn, cattle graze in gently undulating meadows--but the hierarchy of the picture is clear enough, with the abbey dominating the vista like a lord's castle. The inn stood until the nineteenth century, when it was burned down.
Today there is another tavern in its place, an undistinguished brick building that proudly displays a plaque claiming that it is the birthplace of Theophrastus von Hohenheim, known as Paracelsus. That claim is almost certainly false, but his real homestead was indeed somewhere in these meadows, now vanished and forgotten, and the Devil's Bridge seems as good a place as any to begin his story.
At the beginning, however, there is little but legend, rumor, and sheer speculation. You can tell this part of the tale any way you will, and many have done so. One version has it that the innkeeper's daughter was named Els, a matron in the pilgrim hospital. Wilhelm made the inn his home as the local doctor, and in 1491 he married Els. But other sources suggest that Els was Rudi's wife, not Wilhelm's. Paracelsus's mother has been variously identified as a member of the Gr�tzel family, who owned the house in which the Hohenheims lived, and as one of the Weseners of Einsiedeln. Whatever her name, Wilhelm's wife may have been no matron at all but merely a bondswoman to the abbey: this is all that might be implied by the sole remaining description of her status as a "woman of the house of God."
Nonetheless, the occasion of Wilhelm's marriage is purportedly recorded in a portrait painted the same year, in which he holds a carnation as a sign of betrothal. Whether this picture does indeed represent Wilhelm von Hohenheim has been disputed, but it now supplies the basis for several commemorative portraits of Paracelsus's father. Dressed soberly in black, he looks calmly out of a window at a rocky vista much like that visible from the inn at the Devil's Bridge. In the top right-hand corner of the picture are the arms of the von Hohenheims: three azure globes on a bend argent. In the opposite corner is the heraldic head of an ox, possibly a reference to his bride's family name.
If it is truly the father, this image seems that of a man with a temperament very different from his son's: by all accounts a gentle, patientman, whose years of study gave him a good working knowledge of Latin, botany, medicine, alchemy, and theology. Paracelsus worshipped Wilhelm, calling him his first teacher, "who has never forsaken me."1 Never one to feel bound by obligation, his visits to his father at Villach in later life were presumably made more out of genuine love than filial duty.
In 1493 Wilhelm and his wife had a son, whom they christened Theophrastus, although this was often prefixed by the name of his name-day saint: Philip. The Greek Christian name was an unusual choice for a German and reveals Wilhelm's love of Classical learning. Tyrtamos of Eresos (c. 372-288 B.C.), known as Theophrastus, was a pupil of Aristotle and succeeded him as head of the Lyceum in Athens. He inherited Aristotle's passion for natural history, but whereas his teacher had written mostly on the animal kingdom, Theophrastus compiled encyclopedic treatises on plants and minerals. His book De lapida (On Stones), written around 300 B.C., is a comprehensive study of minerals and represents perhaps the earliest known work on practical chemistry. Benefiting from knowledge that Theophrastus gathered through his interest in mining, the book is a forerunner of the great De re metallica by the German humanist Georgius Agricola. In retrospect, Wilhelm could hardly have chosen a better model for his son.
Who, really, was Wilhelm's wife? The paucity of information has driven some biographers to absurd extremes of ingenuity and invention: Josef Strebel's compilation of Paracelsus's works from 1944 attemptsto suggest what she may have looked like by adding a head scarf to a portrait of Paracelsus himself. Paracelsus extols the virtues of his father, but about his mother he is silent. It has been inferred that she was a manic-depressive, and certainly, Paracelsus wrote about mental illnesses with a sensitivity most uncharacteristic of his time. According to one legend, when Theophrastus was nine years old his mother walked onto the Devil's Bridge and threw herself over the parapet into the Sihl. But all we really know is that by 1502 she was dead.
In Paracelsus's time, very few children reached adulthood without experiencing death in the family. Parents expected to lose children to illness or mishap, often at birth, while the plague and other endemic fatal illnesses left countless children orphaned. Violence and murder were commonplace. But the suicide of a young boy's mother, if it really happened, would even then have had a shattering impact on the child. It is risky to speculate about the psychological consequences, but if anyone is to be permitted to do so, it might be Carl Jung, who says of Paracelsus's mother,
She died young, and she probably left behind a great deal of unsatisfied longing in her son--so much so that, as far as we know, no other woman was able to compete with that far distant mother-image, which for that reason was all the more formidable. The more remote and unreal the personal mother is, the more deeply will the son's yearning for her clutch at his soul, awakening that primordial and eternal image of the mother for whose sake everything that embraces, protects, nourishes, and helps assumes maternal form ... When Paracelsus says that the mother of the child is the planet and star, this is in the highest degree true of himself.2
Jung claims that Paracelsus found two substitute mothers in his life: the church and Mother Nature. The agony of it was that these two were not always concordant, although Paracelsus labored mightily to resolve the conflict.
As a child, Theophrastus von Hohenheim was small and frail. Despite his close relationship to his father, he recalled that "I grew up in great misery"3 because the poor wages of a country doctor made for a straitened existence. He suffered from rickets, a softening of the bones caused by a deficiency of vitamin D, often the result of a lack of eggs and milk inthe diet. This disease produces skeletal deformities including an enlargement of the upper head, and it has been proposed as the reason for the curious squarish profile of the balding pate evident in the portrait of Paracelsus made near the end of his life (see here). His skull was disinterred from his grave in Salzburg in the nineteenth century and inspected by an anatomist who confirmed this diagnosis.
It was an indelicate upbringing, which Paracelsus celebrated defiantly later in his life:
By nature I am not subtly spun, nor is it the custom of my native land to accomplish anything by spinning silk. Nor are we raised on figs, nor on mead, nor on wheaten bread, but on cheese, milk, and oatcakes, which cannot give one a subtle disposition. Moreover, a man clings all his days to what he received in his youth; and my youth was coarse as compared to that of the subtle, pampered, and overrefined. For those who are raised in soft clothes and in women's apartments and we who are brought up among the pine-cones have trouble in understanding one another well. To begin with, I thank God that I was born a German, and praise Him for having made me suffer poverty and hunger in my youth.4
This pride in simplicity, even coarseness, was perhaps characteristically German. (When Paracelsus thanks God for his German heritage, he obviously means this to be a label of culture rather than nationality. But when his reputation waxed in the late nineteenth century, the modern state of Germany was eager to claim him as one of its own--for after all, his was a noble family of Swabia, however low they had fallen. He is lionized there still today, where many streets and public places are named in his honor.) In 1590 the Italian painter Giovanni Paolo Lomazzo could have been describing Paracelsus when he advised artists how the German race should be portrayed: with a "strutting stride, extravagant gesture, wild expression, clothing all anyhow, manner hard and stern."5
Although that description owes much to the Renaissance propensity for nation stereotypes, it really was a rough life in the Germanic lands, especially in a rural backwoods like Einsiedeln. One story alleges that Paracelsus was emasculated as a child in an "operation" performed by drunken soldiers lodging at the family inn. But several suchlegends claim he was a eunuch, no doubt supported by his apparent abstinence from sex or romance throughout his life and his advocacy of chastity. According to another tale, he lost his manhood in a childhood encounter with a wild boar. It has even been claimed that he was castrated by his own father. Yet hermits were often thought to be eunuchs, and Paracelsus was often regarded as the former on account of both his solitary nature and the fact that Einsiedeln itself means Hermitage. H. P. Bayon, observing images of Paracelsus with a doctor's eye, pronounces him "eunuchoid" (that is, having reduced sexual characteristics). Added to the evidence of his square cranium, early baldness, and (Bayon asserts) premature senility, he diagnoses congenital syphilis, meaning that Paracelsus contracted the disease at birth from his mother. This is improbable, not only because he never refers to such a personal affliction despite writing extensively on syphilis (and it was to become common enough in his time as to be not especially shameful), but also because the disease does not seem to have spread through Europe until the year after his birth.
Although the Hohenheims were impoverished, Paracelsus recalled his family home as "quiet and peaceful." What riches he experienced were in the meadows and fields. In those days in the Sihl valley and the pastures of the Etzel mountain you could find primula, gentian, daisy, ranunculus, camomile, borage, fennel, poppies, violets, belladonna, foxgloves, chicory, mint, thyme, Saint-John's-wort, mallow, azalia, saxifrage, wild plum, and many other useful plants. Wilhelm introduced to his son the medicinal virtues of this natural bounty, providing the initial stock of Paracelsus's ever expanding pharmacopoeia.
The cowbells that still clank in these meadows today may tempt us to imagine those times as idyllic. But in fact they were turbulent and uncertain, as the Swiss cantons struggled to establish independence from the emperor in Germany. In the late fifteenth century the confederacy formed by the cantons and city-states was still part of the Holy Roman Empire, but in 1499 it mounted an armed resistance against Emperor Maximilian's rule. This, the so-called Swabian War, pitted the Swiss against the southern German states, and the Hohenheims were suddenlyenemy aliens. The war lasted only until the following year, when the allied cantons left the empire, but the conflict is generally cited as Wilhelm's reason for departing from Einsiedeln in 1502 and traveling east with his son (his wife, suicide or not, has vanished) to find a new home in Austria. They settled in Villach in Carinthia, where metals were made.